Book Review:  Science: A Four Thousand Year History by Patricia Fara (2009)

Perhaps I’m biased because the book covers two subjects at once that I hold dear, but I think it is a gem.  Fara does for science something of what de Tocqueville did for America—taking an objective, other-worldly perspective to dispassionately explain just how scientific thought developed through the centuries.  She starts in ancient Babylon (explaining that one must start somewhere) and finishes with the scientific issues and developments of the present (e.g., global warming, nuclear technology, biochemistry).  It is a splendid, big-picture view of the cultures and people who furthered our understanding of the natural world, equitably examining the successes and the failures in each.  Fara defends scientists who today are derisively dismissed (e.g., Lamarck), and poignantly pricks the inflated reputations of those that have now attained near demigod status (e.g., Newton, Einstein).   There are at least two, sometimes a great many, sides to the story of every scientific development and of each scientist believed to have contributed in some way to the advancement of general understanding.   Fara reminds us that history, particularly of science, is in many ways a dialectical process.  We only remember the winners and celebrate them for their victories, but the truth, particularly with science, is that “winners” aren’t often known at the time of the conflict, and anyways often depend for their victories on the contributions of the losers.   Newton is credited with discovering the calculus, but Leibniz discovered it at least contemporaneously (perhaps before) with Newton, and developed for it a better system of notation, still in use today, for which he is rarely given any credit.

It is unimaginably difficult to objectively observe that of which one is a part; the ability to do so delineates the educated, psychically human mind (Albert Jay Nock’s description) from the uneducated mind.  Biases, beliefs and expectations permeate every perception when one is immersed in the subject under consideration, particularly when the conclusions drawn from the observation might impact one’s livelihood or reputation.   It is sheer folly, tantamount to deification, to imagine that scientists don’t bring along their personal biases, beliefs and expectations when observing nature.   Intelligent understanding of scientific pronouncements and discoveries requires presuming that the scientist propounding the conclusion is just as perceptually-impaired as is the rest of the human race, and then investigating further to ascertain whether his perceptual impairments materially affected his observations, or whether he capably overcame them, or whether they wouldn’t have held much relevance for his conclusions one way or another.  In other words, just as in understanding, for example, biblical hermeneutics, understanding the context in which a scientific observation is made is at least as important as understanding its ramifications.  Science: A Four Thousand Year History is most profitable for just that; Fara provides the context in which scientific discoveries have been made.   Because Fara is herself a scientist, (she holds a PhD in History of Science from London University and a physics degree from Oxford University), she has accomplished a most remarkable task:  Providing context for the subject in which she is immersed.  It is as if she were a fish swimming in the ocean that was somehow able to understand and continually remember that everything it perceptually experienced was indubitably impacted by its immersion in the sea, something that few of the scientists or cultures she examines were able, or even attempted, to achieve. 

 The book has its expansive subject matter cordoned into seven chapters, under the headings Origins, Interactions, Experiments, Institutions, Laws, Invisibles and Decisions, each of which contains seven sub-chapters.   Her seven sevens were apparently not accidental; the initial sub-chapter of Origins is named Sevens and includes a dissertation on the historical importance of the number in theology, philosophy, alchemy and astrology.  In this initial sub-chapter, she also struggles with the question of where to begin; for example, should she begin with Newton?  No, that’s far too late for a history of science; it would exclude the contributions of ancient Greek philosophers, whose ideas were still resonant in the scientific community in Newton’s time.  Settling on ancient Babylon makes perfect historical sense.  Science is by and large a product of civilization, and civilization took root first in Mesopotamia.  She admits it’s an arbitrary starting point—there were other civilizations making scientific discoveries contemporaneous to the Babylonians (which she doesn’t at all ignore), but because the Babylonians/Mesopotamians wrote in cuneiform, impressions on clay of which a vast library survives until today, Babylon is the best place to begin.

Her chapter on Interactions starts with the sub-heading of Eurocentrism.  It is a masterpiece.  She forcefully and objectively explains how it came to be that Europeans/Americans/the West believes itself to be responsible for all that has happened that is good in science, from the second paragraph of the sub-chapter:

Repeat something often enough and people will believe it.  Because Europeans were politically and financially powerful, they placed themselves at the center of everything, and wrote accounts of the past that confirmed their own superiority.  ‘The West is the Best’ view of history prevailed in the Europe for centuries, even though there was plenty of evidence against it.

(Substitute America for Europe and the same bigotry obtains.)  Then she goes into a well-reasoned and researched explanation of how this Eurocentric mistake was propagated.  Would that more historians might do the same for political history as Fara is doing here for scientific history.  Objectively, the West can not claim superiority, in science or anything else, without resorting to the edifice of Western values projected upon the structure of history, i.e., without Western dogmas and beliefs, superior and inferior have no relevance.   It must be assumed for example, that nuclear weapons and the specter of holocaust are good (which can only be true if you happen to have nuclear weapons and your enemies don’t) in order to proclaim that the West’s progress in teasing out the secrets of the atom were good.   Indeed the West discovered how to efficiently destroy civilization by unlocking the power of the atomic nucleus.  It takes a profoundly hubristic and myopic view of one’s society to proclaim that such an accomplishment is necessarily good or is indicative of “progress”, whatever that means.  In later chapters, Fara discusses the impact that capitalism-driven nationalism has had on science, and how it combined with latent bigotry to drive the exploitation of less-technologically sophisticated cultures by the West.  Indeed, if ‘The West is the Best’ one wonders, against what is it comparing itself?

Fara even tackles Einstein, correctly pointing out that Einstein was an unrepentant self-promoter whose cosmological theories were mostly ignored for fifteen years until a famous expedition to view a solar eclipse was undertaken by the Cambridge astronomer Arthur Eddington.  She casts doubt on Eddington’s conclusions by pointing out that he had solicited funds for his expedition from a government burdened with the expense of fighting a war on the promise that he would prove the truth of Einstein’s theory.   

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity posits that gravity bends light.  Eddington tried to measure the bending of light by looking at the stars close by the Sun during an eclipse and discerning whether they appeared to be in their proper place, or if their light rays had been bent as they passed close by the sun, making them appear to be where they shouldn’t have been.  Fara points out that this was tantamount to measuring a small coin from a mile away; that there were few such conveniently situated stars; and that the day of the eclipse, the sky was cloudy.  Yet Eddington was able to “prove” Einstein’s theory by selectively discarding results that would have made the proof, and thereby the voyage, inconclusive and a big waste of government money.

Fara is obviously not nearly as smitten with Einstein as are today’s physicists that so resolutely believe Einstein to be a genius that no one dares question whether a theory that now requires 96% of the universe to be invisible and undetectable (dark matter and dark energy) explains anything at all; Fara’s closing paragraph of the sub-chapter Time in the chapter Laws:

Einstein liked to think of himself as Newton’s successor in the pantheon of great geniuses, almost as if some immaterial numinous power could be passed on from one extraordinary intellect to another. Even so, his arcane theory was rooted in the practical problems of clock coordination under the nineteenth-century regime of precision.  Scientific icons are worshipped as other-worldly beings who float above the realities of daily life.  Einstein illustrates how even the most apparently abstract thinkers do not conform to such idealized visions.

Fara even takes on what I call the Church of Anthropogenic Global Warming, from the sub-chapter Environment in the chapter Decisions:

Over the past fifty years, media-sensitive scientists have learnt that the best way of attracting public attention and government funding is to deliver apocalyptic prognoses—nuclear devastation, meteoric bombardment, an impending ice age, global warming.  Modern scientific forecasters seem to fulfill the same psychological needs as religious prophets who preached that the end of the world represents God’s punishment for the sinful.  In that sense, global warming is more rewarding than an ice age because blame can be assigned to the human race.  In contrast with natural disasters, the greenhouse effect and the thinning of the ozone layer are attributed to the industrial activities that drive modern profit-based capitalism.  Following this rhetoric, people may be guilty of destroying the world on which they depend, but scientists are offering them the possibility of redemption through altering their behavior.  By enlisting public cooperation to think green and rescue the environment, scientists convert themselves from agents of destruction into secular saviors. 

I wonder; how many scientists propounding AGW theory could read this and not recognize themselves?  Sadly, probably almost all of them, but only because the lies we tell ourselves are the most trenchantly believed lies of all. 

As should by now be clear, I found this book to be utterly delightful.   Fara’s prose is plain-spoken and clear.  Her mind harbors a vast flotilla of information, yet she still manages to grasp the view of the whole flotilla at once, like an albatross circling overhead.  For anyone wishing to “understand things as they are” in the development of mankind’s understanding of the natural world, this little book (only 364 pages, including Postscript), would be both an excellent starting and ending point.   Fara is to be commended.  I highly recommend Science: A Four Thousand Year History.